Snacks take the spotlight

Explore Madison's snack scene one handful at a time.
Youngblood 3
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Young Blood Beer Co.

It’s the Miss Congeniality of the menu; it’s the most interesting man at the bar. The snack shows up on spontaneous nights, at casual outings and on the route along the way. It has nothing to prove other than how tasty an impromptu bite can be. And Madison has an impressive lineup of them.

Allow us to take a moment to recognize the snack. It might be easier to describe what the snack isn’t, for starters. It’s not an appetizer, as its function isn’t a precursor to a larger meal, and it’s not a small plate, either, as it doesn’t land within an implied series. It isn’t looking for any kind of “best new dish” award, nor a prime spot on the menu. It doesn’t need an unpronounceable, multisyllabic name or a flowery French description. A snack doesn’t have courses and doesn’t usually require a reservation. It doesn’t even call for a fork or knife in most instances. It’s not a meal, but it sometimes adds up to one.

Which leads us to what a snack is: The snack is there to make sure you’re full while having fun. It’s a powerhouse of playfulness, ready for your road trip, your bar crawl or your game night. A snack is what you opt for when you don’t have set plans for the night ahead. It’s low stakes. It’s spontaneous. It’s casual and often easy to eat with one hand. And it’s best when shared with others.

Brian Bartels of Settle Down Tavern and Oz by Oz says snacks remind him of what he loves about his big family. “My mom is literally the queen of snack bowls, always putting something out for somebody, always having something there to nosh on no matter what time of day or how much we’ve just eaten 10 minutes earlier,” he says. “She’s very good at feeding everybody, and I think that’s very much rooted in a lot of our Midwestern hearts and minds.”

The snack is a love language, and it’s a universal comfort food. And, boy, does it have range. It shapeshifts from a bowl of pretzels on a laminate wood tabletop at a Wisconsin bar to a lineup of oysters at a late-night lounge.

So let’s dive into Madison’s snack scene ­— we hope you’re hungry. (Even if you aren’t, there’s always room for a little snack, right?) -AB

Young Blood Beer Co.’s food menu is a master class in snacks, down to the playfully irreverent language used to describe its offerings. On the “Num Nums” menu, a C.C.B. Sammie (Young Blood’s take on a chicken cordon bleu if it were a sandwich, pictured top on opposite page) is topped with “shreddy letty.” The Crunch Rap Supreme is a nod to the Crunchwrap Supreme of Taco Bell fame, but Young Blood’s is made with “fresh, real ingredients,” says co-founder Tom Dufek. It gets even more fun on the “Snack Attack” side of the menu, which includes Tasty Mofo Veggies, a tower of Jenga Tots and Trashy But Classy deviled eggs (all pictured bottom on opposite page). Young Blood succeeds in balancing food that’s well made but doesn’t take itself too seriously. The deviled eggs are crafted in the classic French style — with an onion soubise and trout roe playing supporting roles — but crispy sea salt and vinegar fingerling chips are plunged into the deviled yolk, standing tall like a middle finger to food snobbery. “It has this classy, elevated vibe to it, and then the potato chip really knocks it down and brings it back to approachable,” Dufek says. 112 King St. -AB

Perfect Pair: Barbacoa Nachos + Take It Easy IPA
“Even bad nachos are still nachos — they’re pretty good,” says Young Blood Beer Co. co-founder Tom Dufek. But what takes this brewery’s nachos from good to great are the tortillas they fry in-house. Since this snack is on the heavier side, Dufek suggests washing it down with a crisp, clean palate cleanser, like a Young Blood IPA that tells you exactly what it wants you to do — Take It Easy.

Roll Play 2

Photo by Nikki Hansen

The beauty of snacks is that there aren’t a lot of rules, so the only ones you really have to worry about at Roll Play are those for the board game in the middle of the table. Roll Play touts itself as “Madison’s coolest board game cafe,” and the menu demonstrates an understanding that the games take the role of Player One while food and drinks team up for a formidable Player Two. Rice and noodle bowls are available for those who want to get in a full meal during play, but the rest of the menu offers items that are enjoyed bite by bite and in small sips between turns. There is taiyaki — a waffle in the shape of a Japanese fish — that comes stuffed with your choice of filling: ham and cheese, red bean, peanut butter, strawberry jam or Nutella. Share an order of tteokbokki (think Korean cheese curds, but they’re rice cakes, pictured bottom on opposite page), or chow down on a jian bing (a savory Chinese crepe, pictured top on opposite page) for yourself. You’ll also want to make sure you have a tea (milk, fruit, blended or matcha) close at hand to keep you hydrated for your hostile takeover of the neighboring kingdom. (In the game, that is!) 3241 Garver Green, Suite 115 -AB

Perfect Pair: Nutella Taiyaki + Bubble Milk Tea
If you’re after something sweet, order Nutella-stuffed taiyaki and wash it down with a bubble milk tea at Roll Play. Snacks should be fun, and the Japanese fish-shaped taiyaki is certainly that.

Oz By Oz 1

Oz by Oz (Photo by Ryan Huber)

SNACKEASY /snakˈēzē/ (noun) Definition: A cocktail den with an open-armed philosophy of hospitality that offers small nibbles and bites. Brian Bartels made the word “snackeasy” up. The label is emblematic of the King Street cocktail bar’s playful atmosphere. The sister spot of Settle Down Tavern and the newly opened Turn Key, Oz by Oz doesn’t have a full kitchen, so snacks reign supreme as the culinary complement to its Amaro program in particular. “Every bottle of Amaro has herbs, botanicals, citrus peels and other ingredients that kind of change from moment to moment,” Bartels says. “You can pair a lot of different snacks with those kinds of spirits.” Oz by Oz is all about shareable finger foods, Bartels says, which include the offbeat canned fish served alongside Potter’s Crackers (pictured top on opposite page). Sister establishment Settle Town Tavern has a menu with more than a few snacks to nosh on, too, including ghost fries (pictured bottom on opposite page). Oz by Oz’s snacks are very much a nod to Wisconsin’s traditional snack bowl on the bar, but with just enough intention to elevate them — without adding pretension. By the time you read this, the snackeasy will have likely announced a new slew of snacks on the menu. 113 King St. –AB

Perfect Pair: Swiss Dip and Potter’s Crackers + Freezer Bloody Mary
The Swiss Dip is Oz by Oz’s version of a cheese spread. It combines a little bit of horseradish with cream cheese, Hook’s Swiss and tomato jam. Partnering that with the freezer bloody mary is a no-brainer, says co-owner Brian Bartels.


Photo courtesy of Muskellounge and Sporting Club

An arcade might be considered a relic of the past elsewhere, but not in Madison. Attribute it to our small-town sentimentality, but we’re still looking for experiences that get us off the couch and into novel spaces. And, nothing pairs better with our quirky interests than our love for snacking. Although snacks aren’t necessarily the main attraction at arcades and gaming bars around town, what better way to bring those games to life than by adding a few themed pairings? I/O Arcade Bar packs in the nostalgia with more than 20 themed classic pinball machines and dozens of arcade games from Skee-Ball to Guitar Hero. What’s more reminiscent of the past than a snack menu that includes Lunchables? Muskellounge and Sporting Club brings together all our favorite dive bar games and takes them to the next level with tournaments and special events. Enjoy shuffleboard, ping-pong, darts, foosball and more with a charcuterie-and-cheese-packed tackle box (pictured above). A favorite golf course is never far away at Blindshot Social Club. The virtual golf simulator/restaurant brings more than 120 notable golf courses into the building, along with a host of other games if golf isn’t your thing. Fuel your play with elevated snacks like fried goat cheese balls and fancy pigs in a blanket. –EW

Madison Food Explorers

Photo by Family Tree Photography

Let Erica Fox Gehrig be your expert guide to snacks. She’s the owner of Madison Food Explorers, a walking food tour that takes you from spot to spot with some serious snackage every step of the way. Four times this November, Gehrig will host a Girls’ Afternoon Out with Audrey, aka the Wisconsin statue on top of our state Capitol building. The 90-minute Sunday tours will make three stops. –AB


Illustration by Tim Burton

In 1938, the same year Herman Lay (founder of what would become Frito-Lay) opened his first chip manufacturing facility, Madison welcomed its own potato chip origin story when Frederick J. Meyer started producing packaged chips. Ta-To the Clown was the face of Red Dot, which was the leading maker of snack foods in the Midwest by 1961. A merger with giant H.W. Lay Co. that same year marked the beginning of the end for Red Dot, but Madison’s legacy of chip-making lives on, years later, with local makers. Slide Gourmet Potato Chips has become a Madison-area household name, and owner Christine Ameigh has grown the business considerably since 2012. Pasqual’s Cantina bags its Pasqual’s Original Southwest Tortilla Chips, which are a local favorite lining shelves all around Wisconsin. La Cosecha Tortilla Co. is a fairly new name in the local chip scene, making crispy tortilla chips using heirloom corn from Mexico and the Midwest. –AB

These four locally made products inspire road trip snack dreams for miles.

Yips Yogurt Chips
Parthenon Gyros has developed a snack that keeps your healthy diet on track. The crunchy freeze-dried treats are made with probiotic yogurt and packed with protein.

Lily’s Magical Treats
Who better to found a candy business than a cotton candy-loving 7-year-old? That’s the story behind Lily’s Magical Treats of Madison, which has a lineup of candy products that will make your mouth water, including cotton candy, lollipops, and freeze-dried gummy worms, Skittles and peach rings.

The options for artisan candied pecans are growing at this homegrown specialty store, which is expanding production with a new Cottage Grove facility in addition to its Atwood Avenue retail location.

Les Délices de Awa
Croquettes, authentic West-African snacks that are made locally by Awa Sibi of Les Délices de Awa, will likely tempt you from their spot on the shelves at two specialty markets in town, Madison Oriental Market and The International Market. –AB


Photo by Dino Maniaci

Cicchetti is Venice, Italy’s version of a “snack.” D’Vino on King Street celebrates a more Italian way of eating with a cicchetti menu that includes an antipasto platter, burrata and arancini. Co-owner Dino Maniaci was inspired by the Venetian tradition of stopping at Piazza San Marco on the way home from work for a little snack and a small glass of wine (cicchetti and ombra) while chasing the shade as the sun goes down. One usually stands at the bar or sits at an outdoor table while enjoying cicchetti and ombra, and it’s as much about the ritual as it is about the inexpensive, bite-sized food. –AB


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Andrea Behling is editor at Madison Magazine. Emma Waldinger is associate editor at Madison Magazine.

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